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According to Oxford Learners Dictionaries, delicate has six different meanings. These are some of them:

  1. easily damaged or broken
  2. made or formed in a very careful and detailed way

How do I decide one between different meanings in a sentence?

For example:

The first meaning: the delicate ecological balance of the rainforest.

The second meaning: the delicate mechanisms of a clock.

Which one?: Islands often support delicate ecosystems that evolved without any need for defence.

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I would say that in most circumstances, you could assign both of those descriptions to the word "delicate". Something that is made in a careful and detailed way is usually easy to damage/break.

To support this, lets use your example:

Islands often support delicate ecosystems that evolved without any need for defence.

Delicate is describing the ecosystems, so lets use both of the descriptions,

  1. Delicate ecosystems --> Must have a perfect balance in order to sustain itself. If one factor is wrong then the ecosystem might be damaged - broken easily.

  2. Delicate ecosystems --> Was formed in a very careful/detailed/intricate way

If you are only looking for one description, though, I would choose number 1, because the sentence is talking about the precise balance of substance needed to sustain the ecosystem, and how easily it could be damaged.

  • I agree. The word "defence" provides the clue that it is "1", and not "2". – shin Aug 11 '15 at 9:16

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